In Gaza Crisis, Israel Wants From Egypt More Than Cairo Cares to Deliver

Cairo is trying to achieve a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, contradicting Israel's policy to keep the West Bank and Gaza factions separate in order to thwart a peace process

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A Palestinian man sits on debris outside a building damaged in Israeli air strikes, Gaza City, May 5, 2019.
A Palestinian man sits on debris outside a building damaged in Israeli air strikes, Gaza City, May 5, 2019. Credit: \ SUHAIB SALEM/ REUTERS

The head of Egyptian intelligence, Abbas Kamel, has spent three days with Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas’ political bureau in Gaza, and Ziyad Al-Nakhaleh, secretary-general of Islamic Jihad, in an attempt to bring about a temporary calm.

Kamel is trying to work wonders in a place where magic no longer works. He needs to get Hamas and Islamic Jihad to coordinate, heed the agreements they reached three months ago and immediately curtail the fire aimed at Israel, reduce the protest marches along the border fence and lay the foundations for the next stage of a longer-term calm and economic rehabilitation of Gaza.

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On the Israeli side, Egypt has to deal with Israel backing away from agreements or not fully implementing them, with the resumption of Qatari funds to Hamas, and with a return to the 15-mile fishing zone limit and a significant easing up on the blockade. Israel’s schedule is tight. There’s Independence Day and Nakba Day, not to mention Eurovision. The former two have become strategic pressure points requiring Israel to show restraint but have been used by Hamas and Islamic Jihad to achieve concessions.

But Egypt is also trying to achieve a broader aim: a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation that would allow the operation of a consensual Palestinian government in Gaza, one that could run the border crossings and take responsibility for common administration of Gaza and the West Bank and accept the necessary foreign aid to rehabilitate Gaza.

Herein lies Egypt’s main difficulty: This goal contradicts Israeli policy, which for years worked to separate Gaza from the West Bank in order to thwart the peace process based on the rationale that the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas as its head do not represent all the Palestinians in the territories and therefore cannot be a party to negotiations. While on his recent visit to Washington Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi presented a plan for Palestinian unity as an essential element to advance the “deal of the century,” which Trump plans to publish after Ramadan, Israel is interested in maintaining the Palestinian split as an obstacle to the anticipated plan.

The strategic gap between Israel and Egypt on the question of Palestinian reconciliation doesn’t affect Egypt’s ability to currently mediate on the issue of military calm, and doesn’t present this mediation as a condition for Israel’s agreement to Palestinian reconciliation. Achieving quiet in Gaza serves Egypt’s interests, and allows for continued military cooperation between Egypt and Israel, in which Hamas plays an important role in maintain the border between the Strip and Egypt – not only with Israel.

The dialogue between Egypt and Hamas is also critical to stopping Iran’s attempts to restore Hamas to its sphere of influence and renew the group’s cooperation with Hezbollah. Saleh al-Arouri, Ismail Haniyeh’s deputy, has put out feelers in this direction, meeting with Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut in March. It’s not clear whether these feelers will bear fruit and whether Haniyeh and Sinwar would agree to them, but it has renewed concern about the involvement of Iran, which supports Islamic Jihad but has severed links with Hamas.

Iran’s shadow and the “deal of the century” reinforce Hamas’ status as an organization behaving like a state with far more significant political moves than firing a few ballistic missiles at Israel. Egypt is aware of this status and has contributed a great deal to cultivating it, since just like Israel, it sees its own security interest ahead of all the other agreements, and like Israel, it is interested in taking steps with one responsible actor and not an entire array of organizations. But it requires a bit of economic currency to maintain Hamas’ political standing and Egypt’s ability to have an influence on it. Hamas and the Strip have more than enough gestures and humanitarian aid.

Hamas is demanding that the responsibility that Egypt and Israel give to it be translated into a nod to its exclusivity in governing Gaza, even in the face of Islamic Jihad. Qatari money to finance ongoing activities cannot satisfy a government that has to worry about feeding two million people. Allowing the entry of building materials, establishing a fuel terminal, power stations and a maritime port, and bringing in foreign investment to build factories – this is the foundation that would allow Hamas to confront any organization that challenges its failure to score achievements, as well as the public, which has already shown its readiness to protest in the streets against the regime, even in rough times. Egypt shares this conception, not only due to its political and military implications.

The agreements reached by Israel, Egypt and Hamas include the establishment of industrial zones in the Sinai Peninsula where Gazans would be able to work – thereby also ensuring jobs for Sinai residents. Rehabilitating Gaza would provide work for Egyptian companies and easing the blockade – and certainly its cancellation – would turn Gaza into a trading center for Egyptian goods. But Egypt’s diplomatic effort is aimed at persuading Israel of the close links between economic development and providing guarantees to security calm, and in the meantime Egypt cannot guarantee that this equation will completely silence the shooting.

Herein lies the Israeli dilemma: Egypt is seen as a partner and not only a mediator. This concept lays a responsibility on Egypt that it doesn’t want and cannot fulfill. Pressure on Hamas and Islamic Jihad is one thing, but a guarantee of quiet would require Egypt to become much deeper involved in Gaza, perhaps shutting the Rafah crossing and looking like Israel’s partner in the blockade. But its standing as a mediator requires Egypt to achieve results for Israel and Hamas, which will give it authority and influence to advance next steps and especially a long-term calm.

The three sides – Israel, Egypt, and Hamas – are now on the threshold, each supported by the working assumption that none of the sides, especially not Israel, has any interest in an all-out war. None of the sides has the capability to assess when the frustration, despair and anger in Israel and Gaza will break down the gates of optimistic working assumptions.

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